Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2018, 09:05 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Kazakhstan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Kazakhstan, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan has consistently voiced a desire for inter-ethnic accord and tolerance in the country. However, his government continues to tighten its control over religious minorities. Since October 2009, President Nazarbaev has promoted a National Unity Doctrine put together by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan – an umbrella body that represents the interests of minority ethnic groups – which stresses the consolidation of a Kazakhstani identity drawing on the multi-ethnic nature of the country. However, this doctrine is opposed by nationalist groups, who interpret it as an attack on ethnic Kazakh identity, language and culture.

Language policy is part of this debate. The government has a long-term strategy to gradually increase the use of Kazakh language at the expense of Russian, the other official language, particularly in public settings. While use of Kazakh is steadily increasing in the public sector, Russian is still widely used by Russians, other ethnic minorities and many urban Kazakhs. Ninety-four per cent of the population speak Russian, while only 64 per cent speak Kazakh. In September, the Chair of the Kazakhstan Association of Teachers at Russian-language Schools reportedly stated in a roundtable discussion that now 56 per cent of schoolchildren study in Kazakh, 33 per cent in Russian, and the rest in smaller minority languages. In higher education, a slight majority study in Kazakh and just under half use Russian. The number of students enrolled in university courses taught in Kazakh has quadrupled since the early 1990s. However, in September, discontent with the speed of language reform led to a group of intellectuals and opposition leaders writing an open letter to the President, the Prime Minister and parliamentary leaders, calling for removal of Article 7 of the Constitution, which guarantees that Russian can be used as well as Kazakh in official communications. President Nazarbaev is reported to be categorically opposed to such a change.

A snap election in April saw Nazarbaev re-elected with 95.5 per cent of the vote. Two prominent opposition politicians did not take part because they failed to pass the required Kazakh language test. In elections for the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, held on 15 January 2012, about a quarter of the 98 candidates elected by party list appeared to be from Russian-speaking ethnic minorities (of whom almost half were women). This represents a substantial increase on the previous parliament. A further eight out of the nine representatives appointed by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan were from minority ethnic groups. Two Assembly-nominated deputies were women, representing the Slavic and the Tatar-Bashkir communities.

Over the past 20 years, about a million ethnic Kazakhs have returned or migrated to Kazakhstan under the state-run Oralman scheme (named after the ethnic Kazakh diaspora) – settling largely in Mangistau, South Kazakhstan and Almaty provinces, and the cities of Almaty and Astana. They have come primarily from Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey, as well as Russia and other Central Asian republics. Reportedly these immigrants have faced problems with land allotments, employment, and access to Kazakh- and Russian-language training. Another concern is the acquisition of citizenship, though there have been some measures taken to simplify this in 2011. Some politicians claim that failures in migration policy were partly responsible for strikes by oil workers in Mangistau and Aktau provinces in December that saw 16 deaths; and that ethnic Kazakh immigrants are linked to the new Islamist groups purportedly responsible for bombings and attacks on the police in 2011.

The upsurge in Islamist activity in 2011 has caused concern among authorities. On 22 July, President Nazarbaev reportedly called for increased surveillance of religious communities and for unspecified 'extremist religious ideology' to be 'strictly suppressed'. A new Religion Law, which came into force on 26 October, restricts the rights of religious minorities in contravention of Kazakhstan's human rights commitments. The new law imposes a complex tiered registration system, bans unregistered religious activity, imposes religious censorship and requires both central and local government approval to build or open new places of worship. The new law could mean that only the Muslim Board, which is the state-backed religious authority for Sunni Muslims, and the Russian Orthodox Church are recognized as top-tier religious organizations.

Further plans are under discussion to build on this law by banning all independent and ethnically based mosques (such as Uighur, Tatar or Chechen), taking over all formal Islamic education, and using the state-controlled Muslim Board to control and report on all permitted Islamic activity. While there is no prohibition on men wearing beards and women wearing hijab in the new legislation, the introduction of the new law appears to have been accompanied by a crackdown on these statements of religious faith in some areas.

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